‘What a scoundrel, that publisher!!’ Mondrian talking about X. Harms Tiepen

by Laurens Kleine Deters

Postcard from Piet Mondrian to Theo van Doesburg, 15 May 1918, Theo van Doesburg Archive, RKD – Netherlands Institute for Art History

In the middle of November 1917, after a long delay, the first issue of De Stijl appeared. It soon became an influential journal under the leadership of the painter and architect Theo van Doesburg and it aimed to bring about a revolution in the arts. A large group of the letters that Piet Mondrian wrote to Van Doesburg and others in this period have been preserved. The letters give a picture of what was going on behind the scenes in the early days of De Stijl, a time that was dominated by conflict with the journal’s publisher, X. Harms Tiepen.

Mondrian has doubts
Van Doesburg had been brooding since autumn 1915 on ideas for an art journal. In May 1917 his plans began to be more concrete: he made an agreement with Christiaan Harms Tiepen, who as De Stijl‘s publisher abbreviated his first name to X., something that was not unusual at the time. Van Doesburg obtained a ‘commitment to collaborate’ from Piet Mondrian, Bart van der Leck and others. In July and August various announcements appeared in the newspapers, but the actual publication still did not materialise. Meanwhile, Mondrian had heard from his contacts in Laren about Harms Tiepen and his dubious reputation, which prompted him to send a lengthy warning to Van Doesburg: ‘It is not that I lack confidence in you but I have heard from various quarters that your publisher does not have a good name, perhaps that is why he has difficulty obtaining paper. Nor is he well regarded in the book trade, I have been told. You may know something of this and not have felt it important enough to prevent you from starting out with him. Perhaps you thought it better to publish in that way rather than not publish, yet it saddens one to think that in this world one cannot find first-class people producing first-class work — like ours! Leaving this aside, I have heard things of that publisher that might mean people were prejudiced against our magazine’.

A few days after his warning to Van Doesburg, Mondrian wrote to the minister and collector Hendrik Van Assendelft, in Gouda, in order to apologize for the delay: ‘I wanted to write to you because I understand you were waiting for “De Stijl” to appear. We regret that it is taking so long, now it has been announced. I just recently received an explanation from v. Doesburg: the publisher first wants to have advertisements in it, the printer was waiting for an opportunity to acquire paper, etc. in short, it is going to come out sometime soon.’

Financial dispute
After initial teething troubles it looked to outsiders as if the journal was doing relatively well. By April 1918 there were about 130 subscribers, which must have been distinctly promising for an avant-garde art publication in times of war. But the letters present a rather less rosy picture. Beginning in the spring of 1918, Mondrian wrote several times to Van Doesburg about subscribers who had not received the journal. Beginning in July 1918 there was a serious financial dispute between Van Doesburg and Harms Tiepen, which forced Van Doesburg to pay hundreds of guilders to the printer out of his own pocket; this was money which he would later not recover.

For these reasons Van Doesburg went in search of a new publisher for the journal. It seems that for a while he considered approaching the architect Co Brandes, who was already acting as publisher for the journal Levende Kunst (Living Art). Mondrian’s thoughts were: ‘to me it is enough to know that he publishes Levende Kunst. It tells me he cannot do any good for us. But perhaps you can use him as a publisher. You are best placed to judge that!’ Van Doesburg’s selection of Brandes is striking, because only in January 1918 he had written disdainfully about Levende Kunst to his friend from Tilburg, Antony Kok, as well as others, calling it an ’empty’ paper by a ‘”brown” architect’, referring by this to Brandes’s buildings which were typically constructed of brick.

Slip inserted in to De Stijl on which Theo van Doesburg informed subscribers about changes in administration, November 1918, Bart van der Leck Archive, RKD – Netherlands Institute for Art History

Publication under own management
The collaboration with Brandes came to nothing, and from its second year onward Van Doesburg began to publish De Stijl himself. Harms Tiepen refused to hand over the unsold copies of the first volume, as well as membership records, meaning that Van Doesburg lost ‘more than half of the subscribers’ addresses’.

Van Doesburg placed a large advertisement in the Nieuwsblad voor den boekhandel (The book trade gazette) to inform readers about the change, and he added in a similar notice in De Stijl. The first issues of De Stijl produced by Theo van Doesburg can be distinguished by the cover on which the name of Harms Tiepen has been crossed out by hand. Probably Van Doesburg carried on using the old covers because he had not yet designed his own masthead, and at the same time he could save some money. Another saving Van Doesburg made was to bind the papers with a single staple in place of two.

In this way the story of the conflicts between publisher and editor, which thanks to Mondrian’s correspondence can be reconstructed in detail, left its marks on the outward appearance of the journal.

A display about the conflicts between the editors of De Stijl and Harms Tiepen can be seen in vitrines at the Kunstmuseum, The Hague, until the end of November 2020.

De Stijl, Vol. 2, no. 1 (November 1918) with Harms Tiepen’s name crossed out